Admission decisions are typically based on your academic record (GPA, rigor of courses taken, etc.), your test scores on the ACT/SAT (with the exception of test optional schools), an essay (typically required by more selective schools), recommendations from teachers, in some cases an interview, and your record of extracurricular activities.
While not the weightiest component of your application, extracurricular involvement is used to help determine your fit at a school, and the sort of community member you might be expected to become. It isn’t the first thing that an admissions committee looks at, but it helps to seal the deal if they have decided you are admissible and of interest. So what are colleges looking for in the non-academic aspects of a student’s high school career? Several things, including the following:
- A history of involvement beyond the classroom, which can show that you are a multidimensional person engaged in the world around you;
- Evidence of commitment to one or more activities – showing that you can balance multiple interests and involvements and go the distance with follow-through;
- Evidence of leadership potential, which demonstrates that you take responsibility and handle it well;
- Involvement in worthwhile pursuits for the betterment of your school or community, speaking to your sense of responsibility and citizenship.
It isn’t necessary to have a list of activities as long as your arm, and depth counts for more than breadth — so avoid appearing to be a dabbler by making sure that you have one or more activities that you’ve pursued for two or more years. It isn’t necessary to appear to be the most well rounded person at your school, but some diversity in activities looks good. Therefore if you have mainly been involved in one arena, like athletics, add something in a clearly different realm to show the scope of your interests. The following shows how some of my current clients are demonstrating breadth:
Soccer team captain/DECA member/volunteer at an animal shelter
Marching Band (section leader)/paid employment/Boy Scouts
Track team/student government position
Theatre (acting, writing, directing)/community volunteer through a local religious youth group
Some final thoughts: paid employment is less commonly seen these days, but is definitely valued by admissions staff members as evidence of discipline and responsibility. Also, aim to show evidence of assuming increased responsibility over time in at least one of your activities and you can demonstrate leadership that way. If you’ve been on the school paper or yearbook staff for a while, emerging as editor by senior year will say a lot about you. You might also take charge of an event on behalf of one of your clubs, such as a fundraiser. Finally, compose your extracurricular resume during the summer before senior year and you will have one component of college applications done in advance – always a helpful thing!